In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
Luke 1:5-25, 57-58
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is one of deep joy – a completely unexpected pregnancy after so many years of waiting. It’s easy to sit on this side of the story and think only of the elation that they must have felt, but what we can miss is the years of waiting.
Zechariah is told by the angel Gabriel that he will have a child, but his response is disbelief. Why is that? Perhaps it’s due to the years of unmet hope, the years of waiting, the years of disappointment and longing. He says, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” You can almost hear in his response, What if I tell Elizabeth and she gets so excited and then nothing happens? How can we allow ourselves to get our hopes up only for them to get dashed once again? This is the voice of waiting. This is the voice of one who’s been hurt, one who’s been disappointed.
Gabriel reassures him of what will happen and gives him a sign: he’s going to be mute until that baby arrives. He won’t be able to speak again until John is born.
So, they wait. They wait in seclusion for five months, maybe as long as it takes to really be sure that a baby is coming. Perhaps they wait in isolation for fear of telling someone, only for it to not actually happen.
It’s hard to wait. It’s hard to be in the space of where we are (or were) and the space of where we will be. It’s hard to not lose hope, to not give into disappointment, to not harden yourself out of protection, to not worry that joy is just for someone else.
Sally Lloyd-Jones writes in the Jesus Story Book Bible:
“One day, John knew, Heaven would come down and mend God's broken world and make it our true, perfect home once again.
And he knew, in some mysterious way that would be hard to explain, that everything was going to be more wonderful for once having been so sad. And he knew then that the ending of The Story was going to be so great, it would make all the sadness and tears and everything seem like just a shadow that is chased away by the morning sun.”
There’s something about waiting and how we wait that makes the receiving of what we’ve waited for so much sweeter when it comes. Joy is abundant. It’s because we knew what it was like before we had it – what life was like without it – and now that it’s here, we can’t imagine life any other way.
During advent, we look forward to Jesus’ return when he will make all things new. Right now, we wait for the healing of our broken world knowing that when the waiting ends, our joy will be all the sweeter.
What are you waiting on God for? Where do you feel like you are in the space between? Tell him of these things and ask him to help you wait patiently.
Find a quiet space, somewhere where you won’t be distracted. Leave your phone and anything else that will disrupt you in another room. Take some deep breaths to both calm yourself and to invite the Spirit, the breath of life, to fill you and meet with you. Then slowly read through Psalm 23. Try to engage your imagination. Picture yourself with Jesus.
Where do you feel like you are today? Are you in quiet pastures with calm waters? The darkest valley? Are you somewhere on the path? How do you need Jesus to be with you today? What feast of joy is he preparing for you?
PRAY | God you are with me and I trust you to be my joy.